Growing up in Canada I never fully appreciated Canadian cinema. Oh sure, I liked the films of David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Strange Brew (1983). They were able to break out of the ghetto that is Canadian cinema and actually make an impact in the United States and the rest of the world. It took being in another country to finally appreciate what I took for granted so many years ago. Whenever I got homesick I put on a film like Roadkill (1989), which is fiercely proud of its Canadian culture, and it reminded me of home. Roadkill is the first part of a loosely connected rock ‘n’ roll/road movie trilogy by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. The film was something of a breath of fresh air when it debuted because Canadian film had, up until then, been traditionally known as notoriously boring or, worse, derivative of American cinema. McDonald managed to fuse the low budget aesthetics of the emerging U.S. indie film movement with a distinctively Canadian take on the road movie genre.
Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar) is a naïve assistant who works for a slimy rock promoter named Roy Seth (Gerry Quigley). He orders her to travel through Northern Ontario and find delinquent rock ‘n’ roll band The Children of Paradise and their enigmatic lead singer, Mathew (Shaun Bowring). The band has gone AWOL and missed their last four gigs. Seth tells Ramona to terminate their contract once she finds them. If this premise sounds familiar, it should, because it more than resembles the structure of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) albeit as a comedy. Ramona, like Captain Willard, is a lone protagonist assigned a job she doesn’t want but can’t refuse. She has to navigate dangerous terrain and encounter all sorts of odd characters. Along the way she even writes her thoughts down in a diary that is conveyed to the audience in the form of a voiceover just like Willard does in Coppola’s movie.
Roadkill has the grainy, black and white film stock look of a low-budget independent films, like Stranger than Paradise (1983) and She’s Gotta Have It (1986), to name just a couple of examples. The road movie format is a familiar genre and one that lends itself to the no-frills attitude of independent film because everything can be shot on location with very little money having to be spent on constructing sets. This format also gives McDonald and screenwriter Don McKellar an excuse to introduce all sorts of colorful characters. For example, Ramona meets a documentary crew led by none other than Roadkill’s actual director (he would do this again in Hard Core Logo) who is supposed to be making a music video on the band but ends up coming across more like a riff on Dennis Hopper’s crazed photographer in Apocalypse Now.
This type of film also allows McDonald to show off the Canadian landscape and play up the stereotype of a harsh, desolate environment that is comprised mostly of wilderness. Like he would later do in Hard Core Logo (1996), the director establishes a sense of place and seems to be gently making fun of it while simultaneously romanticizing the trademarks of the Canadian climate. This romanticism also translates to his view of the characters, in particular Ramona played with loads of charm by Valerie Buhagiar (whom McDonald was courting at the time of filming). For all of the gonzo humor of the film, McDonald cares about the character of Ramona, and this comes through in a wonderful scene where she hangs out with a young man (Mark Tarantino) and his friends in an abandoned drive-in. They dance to the sad, soulful music of the Cowboy Junkies with only the headlights of their cars as the source of illumination. The scene is a touching respite from the random weirdness of the movie.
McKellar’s screenplay also contains some very funny dialogue that occasionally plays on the stereotypical image of Canada forever living in the shadow of the United States. McKellar plays Russel the Serial Killer (although, he hasn’t killed anyone yet) and delivers a monologue partway through the film that acts as a funny riff on the cultural war between Canada and the U.S. “I’m a serial killer … It’s more of an American thing, traditionally, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s like everything else, there’s this colonial attitude about it. That if you want to make it you’ve got to go down to California or something. But I’m going to change all that.” Russel figures that the only options he has to get out a small-town are either becoming a serial killer or a hockey player (but he’s got “weak ankles”). It’s an inspired character with little details — like his business cards and a beeper where he can be reached — that makes him so memorable.
In late 1988, McDonald was a film editor working on films for Atom Egoyan (Family Viewing and Speaking Parts) and Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) and trying to come up with an idea for his first film. He was a big music fan and decided to make a documentary about an underground Toronto-based rock band called A Neon Rome. According to McDonald, the lead singer had, “this kind of Iggy Pop thing going, the Iggy moves and [Jim] Morrison kind of tone, I guess, in terms of their songs.” McDonald raised the money for the documentary and then, approximately six weeks before he was supposed to go on the road with the band, the lead singer shaved his head and took a vow of silence. He would sing on stage but would not do interviews. The band broke up and McDonald called screenwriter Don McKellar and told him he had money to make a film. They thought up a story about a woman looking for a band.
McDonald proudly populates Roadkill with all kinds of Canadian music. Children of Paradise, the fictitious band in the film, were played by local band Teknakullar Raincoats while neo-folk band the Leslie Spit Treeo and New Wave electronic musician Nash the Slash have cameos as themselves. The latter musician also composed the film’s score and said at the time: “I’m not interested in competing with the whole video and single business, so in scoring this, I got to do some of my most satisfying instrumental work.” According to Peter McFadzean, the film’s music coordinator, the idea was to use the music to enhance the film, and “use the film to enhance the music.”
At that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Roadkill won the Toronto-City Award for Excellence in Canadian Production and $25,000. McDonald delivered the now legendary acceptance speech: “I hope with the $25,000 I can buy a cure for my hangover. Twenty-five thousand bucks is going to buy me a big chunk of hash. So tell those guys waiting in the back alley with the pipes that everything’s going to be OK.” The Canadian press generally warmly received the film. The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Roadkill is a woman’s Easy Rider, also a doper’s remake of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, also a nod to Goin’ Down the Road.” Conversely, in his review for the Toronto Star, Peter Goddard wrote, “It’s a hustler’s move, a movie that has you thinking, ‘Hey, what a big dumb hunk of nothing this is,’ only to suddenly snap you awake with something so neat and clever you start to realize you’re being had.”
Roadkill is an excellent example of Canadian cinema. While it adopts a distinctly American genre like the road movie, it remains uniquely Canadian in content (except for a cameo by Joey Ramone) and attitude. Bruce McDonald remains one of the unsung heroes of the Canadian film scene, often overshadowed by its better-known figures, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand. McDonald has remained fiercely independent over the years, supplementing his film career with a prolific one in Canadian television. Roadkill is an excellent example of his early work and an engaging, entertaining film in its own right.